#Take The Mask Off: What It’s Like To Wear The Mask

I’m an actress – acting is what I do. It’s what I’ve always done, but it’s not a profession or even a hobby. It’s survival.

I can pin-point the day that I realised that I was different. It was my first day at school. I was five years old. Up to then, I’d lived in my own world with occasional visits to this one.

I remember that I didn’t like this world very much.

I remember strangers talking to me.

I remember strange voices saying, ‘Aren’t you speaking to me?’

I remember voices asking if I was shy.

I didn’t want to talk to them.

I didn’t want them to talk to me.

It wasn’t shyness. It was selective muteness. That’s what happens when the world gets too much. I shut down. I stop talking. I become mute. It’s my safety valve. Without this ability to shut off, I’d totally (and regularly) lose my shit.

I started school in 1975 and the other children treated me differently from the onset. My first day was shit and it set the tone for the next ten years. Teachers told me off or ignored me. Either way, they didn’t understand me. I was bullied, as so many autistic kids are. Only I didn’t know that I was autistic. I just knew that I wasn’t like everybody else. Eventually I understood that I had to interact with people in order to fit in. I had to be more like them and less like me.

That’s when I learned how to perform.

So my life has been one big performance.

I’ve taken inspiration from many people. Some female, some male. All researched via TV, books or people I’ve come into contact with. I copied their voices, their mannerisms, their style (where sensory issues allowed) – so much so, that I lost my own identity.

I forgot who I was.

Was I an alien? Was that why I found it so hard to fit in?

Had I actually been birthed by a human being?

Or had I somehow landed on the wrong planet?

Performing. Chamoflaging. Masking. Whatever you call it, it means the same thing – NOT BEING YOU!

As the years have gone by, I’ve tried my hardest to be like everybody else, except that masking came at a huge personal cost.

One example of how I mask is with eye-contact.

I struggle with eye-contact, though on a good day, you probably wouldn’t guess.

I don’t like looking into most people’s eyes and I don’t like most people looking into mine. It’s an incredibly sensory experience for me – one which overwhelms and makes me feel vulnerable. Like they can read my crazy thoughts? Or I’m standing in my bra and pants. Either way, it’s not good. Then, in my mid-twenties I taught myself to look just above someone’s eye. I’d read it in a book somewhere. It helped, but the effort comes in remembering where to look and when it’s appropriate to look away. It’s in trying to take in what someone is saying while your concentration is elsewhere. There is this inner monologue going on reminding me what to do and when. It’s not natural, therefore it’s not effortless and the more anxious I am, the worse my eye-contact gets. When I’m really anxious, my eye-tic kicks in so people think I’m winking at them. *sigh*

I’ve fought against the mental and physical exhaustion that comes with trying to be something I’m not. Diagnosis helped me to understand who I am and why I experience the world differently and it took some of the pressure off. However, the diagnosis coincided with a nervous breakdown and though I wouldn’t wish one on anybody, it couldn’t have been more timely because I was unable to mask during my assessment. What they got was the real me because I had no energy to pretend otherwise.

Burnout is something that many autistic people encounter at some point in their lives. I did well to get to 46 before I broke down, but when I did break, the fallout was catastrophic. I didn’t know what the hell had hit me. I thought I was shuffling off my mortal coil. Or going mad. Or both. What I didn’t know was that my years of pushing myself beyond my limits had set me up for a chronic condition called Fibromyalgia. Look it up, it’s shit! At the same time, my life-long anxiety turned feral and my entire body started malfunctioning.

I was really unwell.

Masking had been draining the life out of me.

The only way back from that mental crap-hole was to be myself, not that I had any energy to mask anyway.

The only way back was to stop forcing myself to interact because it’s what society expected me to do.

The only way back was to be me.

I live with the knowledge that my health has suffered because of having to mask and it’s hard not to grieve for what’s been taken from me over the years. I didn’t choose to be autistic. I didn’t choose to be different. I didn’t ask people to be arse-holes to me. For most of my life, I considered myself to be the problem to be me, but I am not the problem.

I never was.

I can’t discard the mask completely. It’s impossible. There will be situations where I need to perform in order to get through them because not everything is in my control. Nor can it ever be. But I know that I can slip my mask on occasionally and draw from all those years of acting. The difference is that I give myself permission to leave when I’ve had enough and to accept that I will need recovery time afterwards and to lose the guilt-trip. Self-care is better late than never, yes?

My problems stem from trying to force myself to fit into a world that isn’t mine. Or that’s how it feels. Shove your size 4 foot into a size 2 shoe and it’s going to hurt, right? Try and walk in those shoes, every single day, and you’ll cripple yourself. You get me? The consequence is the damage to my physical and mental health. I’m basically f**ked and I can’t change any of it. I can’t rewind the clock. Not that it would help if I could because autism had a different meaning in those days. All I can do is be here as I was meant to be. As I am wired to be.

To help me to remember, I keep these words where I can see them everyday.

My darling girl, when are you going to realize that being normal is not necessarily a virtue? It rather denotes a lack of courage. Alice Hoffman ~Practical Magic

 

 

 

 

 

Autism: The Pretender

I’ve always known I am different, but for most of my life I haven’t known why.

I’ve had to suppress the real me and try to be like everyone else in order to try and fit in.

Masking. Mimicking. Copying. Pretending. Camouflaging. Whatever you call it – it all amounts to the same thing: Survival.

The cost of trying to fit in is high as many autistic people succumb to physical and mental exhaustion at some point in their lives. Like me. I burned out at 46 years of age.

The moment we leave the security of our homes we become somebody else in order to survive.

We are performers.

So much for autistic people not being able to act, eh?

As well as mimicking my peers, I took inspiration from characters in books and TV. Sometimes it was hard to know where the characters ended and I began. I remember asking my mirror reflection, ‘Who are you?’

Forty years later, I was diagnosed autistic.

Finally. I knew who I was.

Make-up has always been a tool in my ‘how to survive life’ box. Like clowns who hide their true identity behind over-sized clothes and painted on smiles, I tried to hide my ‘weirdness’ behind eye-liner and a layer of foundation thick enough to plaster walls. I’d seen how make-up changed my mother’s face so I experimented on my own and suddenly I didn’t look like me anymore, and if I didn’t look like me, then surely it would be easier to pass off being like all the other girls and, just maybe, they’d like me?

Er, no.

I wore eye-liner at first, but Dad went paternal on me and made me sponge it off. He didn’t understand my reasons for wearing it. How could he? He was a ‘man’s man’ and he just wanted me to stay a little girl as long as possible. It’s understandable, I guess.

Girls my age were wearing make-up – the difference with me was that make-up put a barrier between me and them – at the same time allowing me to blend in a little better. It was psychological because in reality I was still different. I just looked more feminine..

“My dad used to say makeup was a shallow girl’s sport, but it’s not. It’s armor.”~ Courtney Summers – All The Rage

For me, make-up wasn’t about beauty or fashion. It was about protection. Just as a riot cop would never go into an affray without their helmet on, I would never go out without my ‘mask’ on because I would feel vulnerable and exposed.

It was about pretence.

“Costumes and makeup play an important role in the drama, character creation.”

I have reinvented myself more times than Madonna, only with less success. And money.

Is it any wonder I burned out?

Since my diagnosis there have been changes. I feel different. Lighter. Less tolerant of people’s crap. I’ve found that the word, ‘no’ comes a lot easier these days.

I’m a long way from being make-up free as some habits are hard to break. Plus, I look bloody horrifying without it, but the mask is slowly falling and hopefully one day I will wear make-up simply because I want to – not because I need to.

So, what’s changed?

I accept myself for who I am. Also, I’m knackered from decades of trying to hide who I am in order to fit in and for what?

I GOT BULLIED ANYWAY.

Bullied. Ostracized . Whatever. It’s basically human beings exploiting vulnerability instead of offering protection and support.

I’d hazard a guess that most autistic people have encountered bullies at some point in their lives?

Bullies are cowards. Bullies are not stupid enough to abuse people bigger or stronger than themselves. They dominate those who are different in order to boost their own self-esteem and there lies the problem: Bullies actually have low self-esteem.

While I am new to knowing I’m autistic – I have always been autistic and I’ve been feeling resentful towards the people who have let me down over my life. However, resentment will only harm me, not them. That said, I feel more in control of my life than I have ever been. This is why the mask is starting to fall because I no longer need to hide. For what’s left of my life, I will embrace being autistic because it’s who I am. Some people say their autism will never define them but I don’t feel that way. If I wasn’t autistic, I wouldn’t be me.

Being autistic explains everything. Every moment of my life. People think I struggle because I’m autistic, but that’s not true. I struggle with an overwhelming (and confusing) world and I struggle with people.

People are a major problem.

I’ve floundered about from one self-help book to another trying to ‘find’ myself and only when I had my third child did I finally get my answer because he was diagnosed autistic. I have so much to thank him for because without him I would still be struggling with my identity. I’m not sorry that I’ve passed my autistic genes onto him because he’s the happiest little boy I know. He does NOT suffer. He’s NOT a burden. He requires NO CURE. However, I’m am sorry that the world still has a long way to go when it comes to understanding him.

Not so long ago, the school asked him to name things he liked about himself and do you know what my beautiful autistic son said?

“I LIKE BEING ME.”

Will I ever be able to say that about myself?

Lets just say that I’m working on it. Yesterday, I left off the eye-liner AND eye-shadow and I went out into the world. Maybe to most women, that isn’t a big deal, but to me it’s HUMONGOUS because it means that the mask is slowly coming off.

I’m also growing my hair-dye out. This is a challenging process as I need things to be visually ‘right’ and the mad badger look isn’t exactly flattering. However, I choose to think of it as a transformation from my old (and confused self) to who I am now and with each inch of silver hair, I can see the real me emerging. Like a butterfly, no?

Sounds wanky, but it stops me from reaching for the box of hair dye that’s in the cupboard..

For most of my life, I have been a pretender – always trying to be someone else because I thought that I wasn’t good enough.

I AM good enough.

I always have been.

Wanting to be someone else is a waste of who you are ~ Kurt Cobain

Image Via Pixabay

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Alone in the Universe

I like to be alone.

I am completely comfortable in my own company, probably because it’s only when I’m alone that I can be myself. There’s no need to pretend to be normal. I can just be me.

When it comes to loneliness, people usually identify it with physically being on their own. Not me. I can be in a room jam-packed full of people and still feel incredibly lonely because I know I don’t belong. That’s my lonely.

I didn’t ask to be born. None of us do. We are here by choice or mistake and nine months later, out we pop, with no instructions on how to do life. We are at the mercy of those around us and all too often those people let us down.

Those people who had a duty of care to me at school let me down.

As a child I played alone until the age of five and then I had to attend school, or ‘shithole’ as I call it.

School was where I was expected to socialise and interact using skills which I didn’t possess or understand.

School was where I was bullied by children AND teachers.

School was where my sense of not belonging started.

It was clear that other children didn’t like me but I didn’t know why. I tried my best to be invisible but all that did was make me even MORE conspicuous. All I know is that I came to dislike myself too because of it. I couldn’t bunk off because I knew it was wrong. Nor was I able to express my struggles to my teachers or parents so I had no choice but to endure every hellish second of it until I got home.

Home was where I felt safe.

Home was where I was loved unconditionally.

Home was where I could lose myself in my obsessions.

Yet even with my closest family, I was unable to be me. I belonged, yes. My parents would have loved me regardless of anything but I didn’t know how to be myself in front of them. Most of the photographs from my formative years are of me looking away from the camera. That was me before life pressured me into being someone I wasn’t in order to try and fit in. Personas and masks became necessary in order for me to survive.

Something that is common to ALL humans is the need to belong and be accepted by others. I have a need to belong in some meaningful way just as much as anybody else and I want to leave this world having made a difference in some small way. Yet for most of my life, I have felt alien, like I don’t belong here. I breathe the same air. I am a human being in every respect of the word except that my brain is wired differently and people know you are different. They can sense it even if they can’t see it, like Will Smith in Men in Black, who can spot the aliens a mile off despite them wearing their ‘human suits’. That’s how it feels to be me sometimes – an alien wearing a human suit.

These past few months have been an eye-opener for me. The most important change is that for the first time in my life I no longer feel alone in this world. Why? Because there are 700,000 autistic people in the UK alone so add to the rest of the planets autistic population and that’s bloody shit-loads!

There is an autistic community where I don’t have to think, ‘Will this freak people out?’ before I ‘speak’ because people get it. Imagine. After ALL these years. I get to be my freaky self and other human beings say, ‘Yeah, I do that’.

AWESOME!!

I’m hoping that the therapy I am currently receiving will help to address the many years where I was treated badly simply for being me..

The girl who walked up to me one day and slapped me across my face for no reason at all? She was a coward. She was a big girl hitting a small girl – a bully who needed to be flanked by her cronies at all times. I blamed myself for so many years but I know now that I wasn’t responsible for what she did. Nor have I ever been responsible for the actions of others. The problem is with them, not me.

At some point I need to let the past go and move on in order to make the most of the time I have left. Four years ago I felt that nobody would ever understand how I feel. Then my son was diagnosed ASD and I knew that I was autistic too. On hearing my own official diagnosis, I got control back of my life. I know who I am now and why I am different and these next years of my life are going to be lived MY way. I may be in a minority but my life counts just as much as everybody else’s on this planet.

It always has.

I still like to be alone because that’s when I function at my best but liking to be alone and feeling alone in the world are very different things. That’s changed now. There are people in this world who get me. There are also people who don’t get me but are willing to understand and support me. So you see, I am not alone in the universe.

CC Image Via Pixabay